#18 Transcultural Tradition of the Vietnamese Ao Dai

(aka “How I Steampunk”)

Conversations about cross-cultural fashion in steampunk have been commonly assessed from the perspective of a Western, Eurocentric viewer (i.e. taking something and making it “steampunk” is equated with Westernizing a non-Western garment). This viewpoint of fashion is focused on one-way consumption akin to an imperial culture appropriating from a colonized one: the viewpoint that has been prominent during the Age of Empire. Cultural exchange has many viewpoints, however, and fashion, being one of the most immediate forms of public display and consumption, is open to an array of influences that do not have to be connected to a limited, one-way Orientalist dynamic.

An example of this dynamic is the history behind the ao dai.

The ao dai dress is a combination of Chinese and French influences, but is now considered one of the standout examples of Vietnamese national and cultural identity. The evolution of the ao dai has been described by academic Ann Marie Leshkowich as “a bricolage constructed in response to powerful foreign influences.”

The ao dai does not have roots as an indigenous form of dress for Vietnamese women; the common form of dress was a skirt (vay) and halter-top like shirt (yem); the entire outfit is referred to as ao yem.

Image courtesy of vietnam-beauty.com

They also wore the four paneled dress called the  ao thu than for celebratory occasions:

Traditional ao thu than

Clothing and Fashion Encyclopedia explains the history of both Eastern & Western colonialism and how they had influenced the distinctive ao dai design:

From 1407 to 1428, China’s Ming Dynasty occupied Vietnam and forced women to wear Chinese-style pants. After regaining independence, Vietnam’s Le Dynasty (1428 — 1788) likewise criticized women’s clothing for violating Confucian standards of decorum. These policies were haphazardly enforced, and skirts and halter tops remained the norm. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Vietnam was divided into two regions, with the Nguyen family ruling the south. To distinguish their subjects from northerners, Nguyen lords ordered southern men and women to wear Chinese-style trousers and long, front-buttoning tunics. After the Nguyen family gained control over the entire country in 1802, the conservative Confucian Emperor Minh Mang (r. 1820 — 1841) banned women’s skirts (vay) on aesthetic and moral grounds.

Over the next century, precursors to the modern ao dai became popular in cities, at the royal court in Hue, and for holidays and festivals in the countryside. With some regional variations, the outfit consisted of pants and a loose-fitting shirt with a stand-up collar and a diagonal closure that ran along the right side from the neck to the armpit, both features inspired by Chinese and Manchu garments. Elites often layered several ao dai of different colors, with the neck left open to display the layers. Among peasants and laborers, however, the vay and yem remained popular for daily wear.

Under French colonialism (1858 — 1954), Vietnamese intelligentsia and an emerging urban bourgeoisie strove to adopt progressive elements of Western modernity while at the same time resisting colonialism and preserving select aspects of Vietnamese heritage. During the 1930s, as part of the efforts of Tu Luc Van Doan (Self-Reliance Literary Group) to fashion a modern “new woman,” Hanoi artist Nguyen Cat Tuong, also known as Lemur, premiered ao dai styles inspired by French fashion. The light-colored, close-fitting tunics featured longer panels, puffy sleeves, asymmetrical lace collars, buttoned cuffs, scalloped hems, and darts at the waist and chest, thus requiring a brassiere or corset. Lemur’s Europeanized flared pants were white with snugly tailored hips. Criticized by conservatives as scandalous, Lemur’s designs nonetheless marked the emergence of a contemporary ao dai blending traditional Vietnamese elements with Western tailoring and bodily aesthetics, much like the Chinese cheongsam of the same period.

Today’s ao dai – a symbol of Vietnamese pride. Image courtesy of Xcanbiet at Wikipedia

The ao dai today is now known across the globe as being distinctly Vietnamese, though its creation is not. Fashion, politics, and history intertwine, and the ao dai represents how colonial history impacts cultural identity, which is even reflective in the goods we wear and consume. Cultural identity, however, does not have to be overcome by oppressive pasts, but can engage in it, and, in the end, cultural identity can integrate and strengthen itself despite of it.

Thus, steampunk does not have to create an entire imagined history told from one perspective in order to emphasize Eastern-Western blending, but can also recognize preexisting ones and build from there. Steampunk’s subversiveness does not mean the West has to subsume the non-West in order to make a place for it in steampunk. Instead, steampunk can provide the opportunity for participants to express both their heritage and the complex stories that cultural exchange creates.

At Lillie’s in NYC, courtesy of mlleviolet

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1 Comment

Filed under Essays, History

One response to “#18 Transcultural Tradition of the Vietnamese Ao Dai

  1. As a steampunk enthusiast of Vietnamese heritage this article made nearly weep with joy. The Euro-centric view of steampunk continues to hold the majority, but it is websites and essays like this that allow me to feel like muti-culturalism has a place in all genres. Thank you so much for writing this–it gives me the confidence to incorporate elements of Vietnamese cultures into novel that I am currently struggling to write.